Guatemala Solidarity Project
September 24, 2019
Urgent Action Needed Today!
It has been nearly six months since we sent out our last “quarterly” report, not because we haven’t had things to report on but because we have been too busy working with our partners on the ground. This report will include information about some of the major events we have been involved in in recent months, but we want to start by requesting that you take action in solidarity with our partners.
One easy and important way to take action is by making a donation. Because we are volunteer-run, all donations (minus whatever fees the banks are able to charge) go directly to our partners in Guatemala. Your donation can make an impact, and it’s urgently needed to support our work. $500 will support a month’s salary and travel expenses for a teacher to bring classes to four displaced indigenous communities that have been denied access to basic education. $200 will provide legal representation for a hearing for an indigenous community threatened with an eviction order but unable to defend themselves in court because of lack of funds. $55 will cover our monthly support for a young mother raped at the age of 11 whose body is unable to produce milk and whose impoverished family is unable to adequately support the infant. $40 will bring a basic water filtration system to an indigenous community where the majority of children are living with chronic malnutrition in part because of water-borne illnesses.
While one-time donations are very impactful, please consider signing up for monthly donations on our website because many of our commitments are on a monthly basis. You can donate via our website or by writing a check out to UPAVIM and mailing it to UPAVIM, PO Box 63, Marshfield, VT 05658. We thank our fiscal sponsor, the volunteer-run UPAVIM Community Development Foundation, a US 501(c)3 non-profit tax-deductible organization, for supporting us and ensuring that all funds go to our partners in Guatemala.
A second important action needed NOW by people in the US is to call your US House Representative immediately and ask them to sign on to a letter calling for an end to the state of siege recently declared in Guatemala (more below). It is important that US congress, which authorizes training and equipment support for the Guatemalan military, take a strong stand against the suspension of constitutional rights. Call 202-224-3121 and ask to speak with your US House Representative. If you don’t know who it is, tell them your zip code and they will connect you. Sample script: “Hello my name is _______ and I live in your district. I am calling to request that the representative signs the letter calling for an end to the state of siege and support for human rights defenders in Guatemala. The letter is being coordinate by representative Raul Grijalva so you can call his office to sign on. The state of siege in Guatemala suspends even the most basic rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and gives the military the authority to make arrests without arrest warrants. The deadline to sign the letter is Thursday September 26 so please take action now!”
Here are some brief updates on some of the areas we have been working on:
Each of our partner communities have either recently been evicted or are facing the imminent threat of eviction. These “legal evictions” generally follow the same process. First, a corporation or other private entity wants to extract natural resources from indigenous territory. Next, they file a legal motion requesting that the people living on the land be violently evicted. Usually the company has no legitimate evidence supporting their claim to the land and the community has significant evidence. However when the hearing is held, the indigenous community often faces financial and language barriers to present their case. Often they are unable to be represented in court at all. An eviction is ordered, and the company pays an eviction processing fee of approximately $10,000. Hundreds of police and/or soldiers show up unannounced at the community and burn down every home. Subsistence crops are often destroyed in these attacks. Evictions provoke severe health crises and in some cases death by starvation. Once the company has control of the land they extract natural resources in a way that usually causes extensive environmental damage, including clear cutting of forests and dumping of harmful chemicals into rivers.
Currently we are supporting legal action to block eviction orders against more than 40 communities. If we are successful, this will help prevent arson attacks against the homes of thousands of people. We need your continued support to be able to sustain this legal defense.
**Consultations / defense of indigenous territory
Our partners achieved a historic victory on July 25 when the Guatemala Nickel Company (GNC) was ordered to suspend operations of the Fenix mine, one of the largest nickel mines in the hemisphere. Systematic repression has been used against dozens of indigenous communities to steal land for the mining project, including gang rapes, assassination of community leaders and arson attacks against hundreds of homes. GNC has seized control of over 96 square miles in the heart of Q’eqchi territory, causing massive deforestation and pollution of the largest lake in Guatemala, Lake Izabal.
The Constitutional Court of Guatemala ruled that the government must consult local indigenous populations before the mine is allowed to continue operations. Indigenous communities throughout Guatemala have been organizing for the recognition of their right to be consulted about major projects that occur on their territory. The suspension of the Fenix mine is a major victory for indigenous communities, local ecosystems and the global climate. We will continue to work with our partners for the nonviolent defense and recuperation of indigenous lands.
Most children in our partner communities do not have access to schools. This occurs in large part because the government does not even acknowledge the existence of many of these communities. Often community school councils spend years soliciting public school access without any success. In some cases we have been able to help force the government to bring schools to indigenous communities, but only after we help start and operate the schools first.
In recent months, the Guatemalan government has accepted its responsibility to send teachers to public schools in the indigenous communities Monte Blanco Xejbal and SIbija. With the support of donors and the communities, we helped start schools in these two villages in January of 2018. After nearly two years of paying for the operation of these schools ourselves, the government will now run them.
In July, we started a dynamic new mobile school program that will send teachers to 11 communities so that each community is able to have classes for just one week per month. Teachers will focus on literacy and elementary school equivalent skills. One week per month is not nearly as much school access as children deserve and have the legal right to under Guatemalan law. It has been prioritized by our partners as a way to increase literacy and basic skills while continuing to pressure the government to authorize schools in these communities.
Recently our water filter efforts have been focused on helping communities set up one small water filtration system to be shared among all community members. So far this year we have helped install water filtration systems in 23 communities and 26 rural health clinics. While these systems are very basic, they have helped diminish water-borne illnesses. Malnutrition in our partner communities is caused by lack of food, but water-borne illnesses also play a very significant role by preventing bodies from properly absorbing nutrients.
The filters also have a positive environmental impact because in most of our partner communities the only option for clean water is boiling water. The filters lessen the need for gathering wood to build fires. Such fires also contribute to respiratory illnesses.
Water filtration systems in clinics are extremely impactful. Clean water is necessary for many medical procedures but it is unavailable in most rural health centers. One of the most common reasons people visit such centers is because their children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The treatment can be fairly simple and inexpensive, but it requires clean water.
**Health care delegation
This summer the GSP organized a ten-day health care solidarity delegation in which one doctor, 16 nurses and three nursing students examined and gave medicine to children in seven indigenous communities. Over 97% of children had untreated illnesses, most had multiple untreated illnesses, and the majority of children were malnourished. While we had supported health efforts in the past, this was the first time that we helped conduct health assessments. We will be organizing two similar delegations in summer 2020 and are looking for volunteers to join us. We expect to examine at least 1,000 children and to work with local health providers to improve their capacity to serve people in the region.
The Guatemalan government is targeting hundreds of indigenous activists in our partner communities with arrest warrants on fraudulent charges. People who are arrested have faced beatings, denial of food and denial of medicine. We have seen too many leaders and families suffer from these incarcerations. We urgently need your support to prevent further arrests and defend those who are arrested. Despite many failures, there have been important victories.
On April 26, Abelino Chub Caal was declared innocent in a historic ruling after spending more than two years in prison without a trial. Abelino is a Q’eqchi’ spiritual guide, organizer and disaster relief technician who has collaborated with the GSP for over 10 years. He was accused of leading the burning of African Palm trees despite the fact that he was in a water rights workshop over 100 miles away from the alleged burning at the time. The government didn’t even produce evidence that the African Palm trees had been burned, although they did admit to sending security forces to burn down indigenous villages to make room for the planting of African Pam, banana and plantain trees.
The ruling was historic in part because of the judge’s strong condemnation of the government, saying that the company and the government were collaborating to repress Abelino based on his status as an indigenous leader. The court also called for an investigation into the company’s claim to own large extensions of land in Q’eqchi’ territory.
In August we were also elated to participate in the trial that ended with a not guilty verdict for indigenous leaders Moises Maas Tut and Jose Cacau. Unfortunately not all trials have ended so well. Q’eqchi’ activist and environmentalist Bernardo Caal has now spent over 2 years in prison for his eloquent defense of the Cahabon river. Community leader Pablo Sacrab is soon to enter his 9th year in prison after being arrested in 2010 on fraudulent charges. With the support of our donors, we will continue our commitment to visit these and other political prisoners at least once a month, bringing food, medicine, clothes and related necessities.
On August 11, Alejandro Giammattei won the election to become the next president of Guatemala. The overwhelming majority of eligible voters did not participate in the election as the entire process was accused of being fraudulent. Giammattei is an extreme right win politician who had previously served 10 months in prison for his alleged role in a prison massacre. He won in part because reformist candidate Thelma Aldana, consistently ahead of Giammattei in polls, was barred from running shortly before the election.
Significant “irregularities” also occurred at the local level, where GSP activists witnessed right wing political parties illegally offering bribes for votes. The election took place earlier than usual, and before most communities harvest corn and other staple crops. The majority of indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, and small bribes and offers of food can be enough to win votes. Right wing parties have also spread rumors that secret cameras film people in the voting booths, causing fear for reprisals.
Despite the highly democratic process, many of our partners have accepted the results of the election in large part because some elements of the military appear to be organizing to take direct control of the country and do away with elections altogether. As awful as the result of the election was, there remains hope that in the future more candidates will be permitted to run.
**State of siege
On September 4, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales declared a state of siege for a period of thirty days, which was ratified by congress on September 7. This suspended numerous constitutional rights, including freedom of movement and freedom of assembly, in six departments and twenty-two municipalities. The state of siege was declared following the killing of three Guatemalan Marines, shot to death on September 3. According to the government, they had been investigating an illegal drug trafficking airstrip. According to witnesses, they had been harassing a group of indigenous women when a fight broke out.
Regardless of the impetus, it is clear that the state of siege is an overly extreme response. The state of siege suspends basic constitutional rights such as the right to protest, assemble, and have a free press. The military has the right to conduct searches of homes and make arrest without warrants. It is illegal for indigenous communities to conduct meetings – we have even had to suspend our adult literacy programs in numerous communities.
It is not a coincidence that the state of siege primarily covers indigenous Q’eqchi’ territory where communities have made significant inroads in blocking land theft and environmental destruction on behalf of resource extraction companies. While we don’t use donations for lobbying efforts, the GSP is working hard now in US congress to weaken US support for this extreme and repressive measure.